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Published: | Canada

The Invisible Hierarchy among People

It is one thing to stand up for fair and transparent treatment of all people, but when people order themselves vertically according to which group gets acknowledged and supported first and which other groups should follow; I find it contradicts the mission of achieving social justice . This also contributes to the phrase “a broken system”.

Disclaimer: Opinion piece. Please note the content maybe tough, but as mentioned, this is an opinion piece. It is primarily based on my personal life, stories from friends, family and professional acquaintances. Also I will be identifying races and ethnicities, but I am not trying to make a generalization or sound negative, but I will be straight forward. This does not represent the opinions of other parties that I am associated with, whether it is in a professional or personal capacity.


I am not one to see differences, unless people give me a reason to, and usually those reasons are negative. I also approach people as individuals giving them the benefit of doubt all the time to the point it becomes mentally and emotionally exhausting. Going through my life, I have observed, experienced and also have heard many stories that allude to this invisible hierarchy among people and people of colour. Whether it be in an organization, a school, in politics and in society overall, this hierarchy exists. It also exists globally, but varies in terms of which ethnic group or race is at each rank depending on the country and region focused on.  To me, it is the unspoken truth and reality that people of colour (if they are at the bottom of the hierarchy) seem to brush off and talk themselves into tolerating, while people at the top, take advantage of their rank and establish privileges for themselves.  Speaking to this, I am also saying that it is not only one race that enjoys being privileged in our present time. The world has additional races, ethnicities, religious and other groups that have privileges that were borne out of social justice initiatives.

Although these groups will not consider themselves privileged or be cognizant of how their privileges have enabled them to have customized benefits in society; it is infuriating when I see people at the bottom of this invisible hierarchy experience injustices due to their privilege. When a person or a group functions in a way that certain rules/laws do not apply to them, or they can demand special treatment without taking accountability for their ill behaviour, and/or basically get away with behaviour that if done to them they would have zero tolerance for, but if they do it unto others it just needs to be accepted; they are marginalizing those who are trying to integrate with other ethnicities and cultures in society. This resembles privilege to me. Google’s definition of privilege is “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.”

Justice should always be a right to demand for people who believe in fair treatment in whichever context it is applied. I am all for social justice, especially given my ethnic background, its deathly history and its unbalanced socio-political context. However, I find that some of the methods and intent behind the plight for social justice is not that innocent. You may think I am being a cynic, but that’s where the implication of the hierarchy starts becoming the unspoken truth. When people try to deny the existence of such or are not motivated to introspect as to how they fit in society, the fit is implied by the invisible or implied hierarchy. By default, if you are at the bottom of the hierarchy you would have no choice but to accept it. Some people just say this, “You just have to suck it up and deal with it. What to do?” I hear this often and usually it comes from people who are aware they are at the bottom. There are others (articles exist on this) who say that humans are hard-wired for hierarchy. I understand this comes from a social-science stand point, but I still find it extremely hypocritical when the same people who fight for social justice causes are the ones reinforcing the hierarchy. Depending where you are in the world, this hierarchy will change according to the social context of the country, province, state, city, town or village you are living in. It is one thing to stand up for fair and transparent treatment of all people, but when people order themselves vertically according to which group gets acknowledged and supported first and which other groups should follow; I find it contradicts the mission of achieving social justice . This also contributes to the phrase “a broken system”.

Let’s look at organizations (in the context of Toronto). Most organizations do have a structure, even when they claim to be a flat organization. The implied hierarchy is in addition to the physical org. structure. What this hierarchy does is inconspicuously and systemically determine which person gets access to opportunities, promotions, perks that are not part of a contract, such as how many times an employee can be excused for being late, overlook an employee’s repeated mistakes, be excused for running their mouth negatively, or excuse their ill behavior and how many times one can be unproductive during work time.  Despite having an employment contract or a performance evaluation, there are numerous examples where if you are at the bottom of this implied hierarchy, you will be called out immediately whereas if you are at the top, your negative or ill behaviour will be disregarded by management.

Now the question you probably have is what determines who is at the top and who is at the bottom.  From my observation, experiences and stories of others, this hierarchy is primarily based on which ethnicity/race/religion is represented more in your department and organization.  Simultaneously it is contingent on the socio-economic and political context of the city/province/state and country you are living in. I know of many stories where Tamil employees are used as scapegoats by management (my own experience included) knowing that we are toilers to reinforce professional or performance standards to employees management is afraid to pick on, because they fear racial backlash. This never works, because groups who feel they are at the top are self-consumed by their privilege that some don’t even hold themselves accountable for their actions and words. It appears that there is this natural tendency that inhibits us from approaching certain race or ethnicities the same way. An example of this is when the manager can be Tamil and there can be one Caucasian or Jamaican Canadian employee in her department reporting to her, she will still be at the bottom of the hierarchy. She won’t be able to apply the company’s established disciplinary protocol, challenge free if that employee displays disrespectful behaviour and/or consistently comes late to work or whatever the case may be. I have seen first -hand where Caucasian managers were afraid to coach an African Canadian employee because of racial backlash. This individual, along with her Jamaican colleagues will get away with a lot of ill behaviour, arrogant tongue and everything else in between.  This is privilege. To be able to get away with or be immune to a company’s professional standards and protocols for disciplinary action, to me, suggests, privilege. Believe me when I say I have seen this many many times.

Another story, one of my friend’s co-workers, a Jamaican-Canadian employee would literally spend hours watching sermons on YouTube during work hours. Although she was repeatedly coached on her performance and her duty and tasks, she did not care at all and continued to do her own thing. I am certain that if a Tamil employee was in her place watching YouTube videos, he or she would have been fired in no time. One of my other friends was confronted by her colleague at her workplace about a conversation she had with another staff. That staff mentioned to the colleague that the conversation she had with my friend had upset her. My friend ended up calling her colleague out on her own behaviour as well.  My friend let that colleague know how many times she was spoken to disrespectfully by her and was tolerating it.  That employee’s immediate response was, “It is okay if I do, that’s how I am.” My friend shot back again saying, “So it’s a different standard for you, and for me, while we both work for the same company holding the same position?” For that, the employee was stumped and didn’t know how to respond. I am not excusing my friend’s behaviour, just wanted to point out that people of colour are aware of this hierarchy which they are reinforcing themselves. The employee was a West Indian Canadian, my friend was Tamil.

Now say this is an expatriate situation. It is an African Canadian or Caucasian Canadian expatriate in Saudi.  Who do you think would be at the top of the implied hierarchy? Ofcourse, it would be the Saudis, also known as the host country nationals in HR terms.  Even if the expatriate is in a managerial or executive position, the host country nationals (Saudis) who report to them will still be at the top of the invisible but implied hierarchy. This would mean you cannot approach various situations with them the same as one would at the parent country (Canada). You may think this is obvious because the expat should be aware of the cultural differences, but it is not so black and white with what I am trying to allude to here. For instance, when it comes to insubordination of a Saudi employee and a Caucasian Canadian expat manager, the manager would have to take the high road on a situation even if he or she knows they are in the right. If they follow normal HR protocol of the parent company, they won’t be able to hold their expat position too long. I am not saying people of Saudi are difficult, they are quite hospitable, but there are certain situations where it is tricky to navigate as an expat in an organization in the host country, not just in Saudi.

As I was gently trying to describe previously, there is definitely a separate hierarchy among people of colour, especially in workplaces. As a Tamil when I enter a department mainly made up of West Indian and Jamaican Canadians, I will be at the bottom of the implied hierarchy. If you are a capable employee and the rest of the employees pick up on this, they will be your primary antagonists if you do not end up stroking their ego. This dynamic was observed during my earlier contracts. I had actually overheard them say that they need to “put me in my place”. I find this phrase coming from many women. My work had nothing to do with them, but they went out of their way to sabotage my work and my reputation. I was just a contractor.  If I even have a casual conversation with another employee at another department during break, they will make it their mission to find out the content of that conversation while spreading malicious gossip. I have also had men do the same. I didn’t know contractors at times have it this bad, but then realized that this immature and unprofessional behaviour stems from this invisible hierarchy and I apparently was sort of a threat somehow. While I was going through this toxic situation I observed how a Filipino and a Bengali female colleague were integrating themselves in this department although they weren’t contractors. I noticed that they were trying to find out who the perceived Alpha woman was in the West Indian and Jamaican cliques in the department and once they found her, they started to stroke her ego time to time. The effect of this was that everyone was  extra nice to them even though they don’t meet their performance standards, take a lot of breaks, be late to work etc. It was evident that being polite and professional wasn’t enough.  I am not one to stroke people’s ego just to be treated with respect. To me, putting on a performance like that seemed daunting.  Nevertheless, those girls made me aware that there is an invisible and implied hierarchy in that department.

Now how do you think the invisible hierarchy is formed in schools? Based on my experiences, observations and some of the parent’s and student’s stories, I think it is based on the principal and teacher’s backgrounds and their perception and understanding of various races and ethnic communities.  Recently I had a Grade 6 student vent to me; saying that her South Asian teacher favors other South Asians compared to students from other communities such as the Black or Asian community.  Another story was a Tamil teacher said her Caucasian principal will have her take responsibility for more challenging students compared to other non-Tamil teachers. Some not-for-profit organizations that cater to child and youth programs function similarly. There is this implied hierarchy internally within the organization which determines how organizational support is distributed to the employees working there (depending on their background) and the members who use their services.

When it comes to politics, although we have a handful of Tamils as politicians, there is still this invisible hierarchy within the caucus. This consequently can cause internal politics. An unfortunate story I heard was a Tamil political candidate who was nominated to run for a riding was blindsided by some internal politics where a North Indian Canadian ended up running.  Internal politics may also have been caused by our very own, like the renowned Nandu Kathai - crab story (if you haven’t heard of this story, have you been living under a rock, pun intended). For Tamils to take strides in politics it is very important that they have their own community’s support, because they are outnumbered in the political arena and with this implied hierarchy in place it is more challenging (my opinion). It is one thing when the Tamil population is acknowledged during campaigning time by all these various politicians, and also have them attend various cultural events, but it is completely different how we are considered as part of the overall make-up of the province and country.

It is interesting to see how other South Asians (excluding Tamils) are supported and acknowledged by the majority in society compared to how Tamils are. What I mean by that (and I have no other way of saying this) is that I find many individuals perceive North Indian Canadians to be at the top of the invisible South Asian hierarchy. I am not sure what it is, but there is this tendency for some Tamils and people in general to consider Canadians of North Indian descent to be the epitome of South Asian culture. Some people’s mentality is that if they support Bollywood or Indians, they are supporting and acknowledging all South Asians.  Sometimes I feel like giving a big FYI notice stating that SriLankan /Eelam Tamils are not Indians, we have cultural similarities, but we are NOT the same. I have no issues with that culture, but I would like my background to be understood accurately.

When referring to the general society (in the context of Toronto) and its invisible hierarchy, I have a personal story. I was at the pharmacy and a Filipino pharmacist attended to me. She was obnoxious and impolite. It was like she didn’t want to assist me. I remained calm and was courteous throughout the disrespectful encounter. Once I gave my prescription, I stepped aside to wait for the meds; there was a Caucasian (White) couple behind me who stepped forward to be assisted. What I saw happen next, was jaw dropping. The Filipino pharmacist had a 360 degree personality change. She was like a completely different person to that White couple, courteous, polite and caring. She actually sounded genuinely caring. She was good. I have experienced this type of transformations through my 21 years in Canada. I also have family members, relatives and also friends who have similar stories. Another story, I was at this esthetic place, it has an ethnically diverse group of customers. I was next in line, but there were three Jamaican Canadian women who came after and were venting about waiting and kissing their teeth. One of the staff came out and was ready to take the next customer which was me. She saw the Jamaican women (and heard them) and looked at me. I saw the fear in her eyes and I understood that she needed to take them first. I gestured to her, indicating it was okay she can go ahead with them and I will wait. Those women complained throughout their services and after they left all the staff sighed in relief. These women (the staff) were so tensed among the presence of those Jamaican women that they gave them the privilege to skip the wait time and go get themselves catered to. One of the woman said that she is always so scared when they come, because they have an aggressive behaviour and throw their arrogance front of the other customers. I felt so bad when I heard this and I will never forget the look that staff gave me when she came out and asked who was next, it was sheer fear. By the way this was a South Asian run esthetic place.

In other countries, the implied hierarchy will obviously change depending on the composition of its society, like the population of ethnicities that live there, the current socio-economic and socio-political issues and the culture and religions represented. Regardless of which country you are in, this invisible hierarchy is not a perceived one, it is there, everyone is functioning based on it even if they do not acknowledge it or are cognizant of it. I just find this hierarchy less progressive (my opinion), not to mention the caste system in certain nations in this world. Some stereotypes with regards to caste are based on historical and behavioral pattern of the people belonging to them, but I believe it should not be a sole determinant on the quality of an individual. If you are wondering why I didn’t mention White/Caucasian people being at the top, it is because that is already implied. However, they are NOT the only ones at the top and if you are a person of colour, take a moment to look at the invisible hierarchy within Toronto; you will be able to identify the people of colour who consider themselves at the top. The examples I just mentioned previously are just a few of the many.

Having said that, I have been to quite a few interracial marriages within the Tamil community and it is awesome, but the understanding of this marriage by certain adults of the previous Tamil generation is worrisome. I literally had a Tamil aunty say that I do not want my son to marry a Tamil girl, because she finds that it is not “modern” for her son to marry a Tamil girl. Also some Tamil aunties like their son’s brides to be gorgeous and fit (which is fine), but where there is a twist is that when the bride is not-Tamil, it is okay if she does not meet their standards of beauty and fitness. This was an actual conversation, believe me. When I heard this I was partly laughing inside, but at the same time very disappointed that this is how certain Tamils perceive themselves. Marriage shouldn’t be about what is modern to do to somehow elevate your perceived status in society or life in general.  It should be about (in my opinion) if you and your partner mutually love and respect each other while having a limitless and intertwined connection. Call me naive, but this is what I believe.

Between the implied hierarchy and the perceived hierarchy by Tamilians, I find there is no gap actually, and that is a little unsettling. Maybe not all Tamils are affected by this, but many are and that crab story still is applicable to today’s Tamils society.  Perhaps not to the degree it was before, historically speaking, but it is still in effect. The only reason why I say this is because I have been in multiple situations where Tamils are the ones bringing each other down first, before anyone else. I am actually speaking to all generations.

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Anon Anon
Just now • Canada

This article is kind of in the eyes of a person who is of Indian Nationality and not relevant to Tamil Culture

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